Gov. Maura Healey on Wednesday said she was “proud” to nominate appellate judge Gabrielle Wolohojian to the state’s highest court, even as she faced criticism for selecting her former romantic partner for the high-profile role.
“I don't want the fact that she had a personal relationship with me to deprive the commonwealth of a person who's most qualified for the position,” Healey told reporters outside her State House office.
Asked whether this was the only name sent for her consideration by the nominating committee, Healey declined to comment.
“I’m not going to get into how we engage with the judicial nominating committee,” Healey said. She said Wolohojian had the “unanimous and unqualified support of the entirety of the commission.”
Wolohojian, 63, was appointed to the Appeals Court in 2008 by then-Gov. Deval Patrick and has authored over 900 decisions, according to the governor’s office.
When asked if there was anyone else more qualified for the position, Healey responded, “No.”
Her decision drew swift condemnation from the head of the state Republican Party, who called the move “highly inappropriate.”
“We urge the Governor to immediately withdraw her nominee and, if not withdrawn, we urge the Governor’s Council to reject this nominee,” MassGOP chair Amy Carnevale said in a statement.
The nomination must next pass muster with the Governor's Council. Member Tara Jacobs told New England Public Media that the high court regularly hears cases based on the governor's policies and believes that could raise a conflict of interest.
"For the SJC, which only has seven sitting members, what impact will that have on their work and their burden if there is a member who frequently has to recuse themselves?" she said.
But leaders in the state’s legal community said they support the governor’s choice, and downplayed questions about whether the appointment created a conflict of interest. Massachusetts Bar Association President Damian Turco said Wolohojian’s past relationship with the governor shouldn’t be an issue.
“The fact that Healey and Wolohojian used to be in a romantic relationship, I don't believe it causes any conflict or issue here necessarily,” Turco said. “Wolohojian is an extremely qualified candidate on her own and the relationship ended years ago.”
Turco said Wolohojian has devoted much of her professional life to public service. She earned her law degree at Columbia and a doctorate at the University of Oxford, then went on to clerk for judges on the U.S. District Court and the federal 1st Circuit Court of Appeals. Wolohojian was a senior partner at the Boston law firm now known as WilmerHale, where she met Healey.
A 2015 Boston Magazine profile of Healey said the two had been together for eight years at the time. It’s not clear exactly when Healey and Wolojian ended their relationship.
Healey now lives with her current partner, Joanna Lydgate. Healey and Lydgate told The Boston Globe in an interview last year they began their relationship in 2020.
Legal experts said the judicial nominating process serves as a check against potential conflicts.
Candidates for judgeships kick off the process by filling out a detailed application. From there, a special nominating committee interviews candidates and conducts background and reference checks before determining whether a candidate will be forwarded to the governor for consideration. Healey’s office said a five-member committee screened candidates and unanimously selected Wolohojian.
Lon Povich served on Judicial Nominating Commissions under former governors Romney and Patrick and was legal counsel for former Gov. Charlie Baker. He said the judicial nominating process is rigorous and ensures that judges are qualified to serve.
“I think it shows great character both on behalf of the governor and Judge Wolohojian to move forward with this nomination because it was clear there would be commentary based on their prior relationship,” Povich said. “She is extremely qualified and should not be disqualified because she had a reported relationship with the governor.”
Stephen Gillers, a professor at NYU School of Law who specializes in legal ethics, said there's no rule against naming a former partner to the court. Healey knows the character of the candidate she's nominating, he said, but the nomination can raise questions for the public about the nominee's independence in a case involving the state or the governor.
"I'm sure Governor Healey thought this through and decided the quality of the nominee and the quality of her experience as an appeals court judge could offset public concern," Gillers said.
At the press conference, when Healey was asked whether Wolohojian might have to recuse herself from some cases before the high court, the answer was an unequivocal no.
However, people who know Wolohojian said if she felt there was a conflict in a matter before her, she would recuse herself.
Shira Diner, president of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said Wolohojian has the credentials for the Supreme Judicial Court role, but said the high court needs judges with more diverse backgrounds, and more experience defending people accused of crimes.
“It’s a solid and good choice,” Diner, who is also a Boston University law professor, said, “but in some ways also a completely predictable choice because this is yet another judicial appointment of someone who does not have experience in criminal defense work.”
Governor’s Councilor Terrence Kennedy signaled he would back the nomination and did not see a conflict.
"I don’t have a huge problem with it,” he said. “Some people might not think it passes the smell test, but she’s extremely qualified. I don’t think she should be punished for her prior relationship with the governor.”
The Governor’s Council is expected to take up the nomination by the end of the month.
WBUR’s Amelia Mason contributed to this report.
This article was originally published on February 07, 2024.